Benjamin Percy (2016) Thrill Me Essays on Fiction.

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If like me you like to read and also do a bit of writing, then this is a book you should read. I like the measured approach of Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer. Benjamin Percy gets it from the word go. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions of Writing and Life prioritises writing before life, but, hey, nobody is watching and nobody is perfect.

You can do both. Benjamin Percy bombed on creative writing courses, or workshops, as they call them in America. But he was younger and we all make all kind of mistakes. He liked to read and write genre fiction.

Vampires, dragons and robots with laser eyes. These were the literary stars of my childhood. These stories were unified by the same pattern: they began with a bang –high jinks ensured – then the hero overcame some villainous forces to win love and a heap of treasure. Books were portals meant for escapism.

That was pretty much me too. Or #Me Too. I was a page turner intent on finding out what happened next. Even now I’m not sure if I’ve read a particular book, but bits of what happened sticks to the back of my melting mind. Later in life I did an Open University course on Shakespeare. I always thought I was a bit thick and missing something big. When I sat the exam I answered a question on the role of the fool in Shakespearian drama. Then I stopped. I was bored with what I’d written about Lear’s fool. England’s greatest playwright. The man that had introduced more words to the English language could go and fuck himself. I was never going to be that kind of person. I’d rather read the ingredients on the brown sauce bottle than tackle again Cymbeline, King of Britain. I literally failed the literary test.

I could read a book very quickly but I couldn’t fully understand it. Here’s the bit where I say I knuckled down and…well, you’ll be waiting a long time. When reading becomes like work I’d much rather do something else. You can write about zombies or dragons or robot ghosts and the chances are I won’t read it. If I do it better be better than Shakespeare. Percy asked a workshop tutor he respected for that Rosetta stone of advice that would turn vague scribbling into a published book or story. His advice was simple: ‘Thrill me.’

Imagine there are 1000 books published in English every day. You want to be a writer and work your way to the top, you need to be like Rocky.  Yeh, I know. It’s kind of cheesy. Percy likes Rocky. And I like him for liking Rocky. So you need to have that urgency on the page and in the longer term. You need to take the body blows. So here we have it. Your protagonist needs obstacles in his way to reach his goal. Rocky needs to catch a chicken before he can think of knocking out Apollo Creed. Protagonists need short-term, lower-order goals, before they get a shot at the big prize. In the background there’s always that ticking clock. No chicken is going to wait for you. The bell for the first round is going to ring. The reader needs to turn the page to find out what happens next. To be a writer you need to hook the reader and keep hooking, until you are in the top ten. Then No 1.

In Set Pieces – Staging the Icon Scene you need to cut away the dross and create something memorable. Rocky runs up those steps with thousands of school kids at his back shouting his name. His bloody face after the fight and he looks outside the ring, looking for his wife, and he bawls her name. ‘Adrian…Adrian…Adrian’.

There Will Be Blood, Percy argues violence needs to be earned. Characters do what they keep doing, if violence comes out of nowhere either you’re a genius, or you’ve not caught the chicken first. Violence like love has an emotional arc. Writers should choreograph the dance. Rocky doesn’t just go Pow! Pow! Pow!   Only Rocky can get away with that.

Making the Extraordinary Ordinary is quite a simple idea.

Most beginning writers when they first get caught up in the thrilling idea…Let’s call this tendency giganticism.

He then quotes one of the Russian greats, I don’t really get, Chekov, but who offers good advice about anchoring the universal in specific detail, ‘ on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright star, and the black shadow of a dog or wolf rolled past like a ball’.

In other words the writer is not generalising. Anyone that can write like that, even if it is Chekov or Shakespeare, gets my foolish attention.

He quotes Tim O’Brien in ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ and making the reader believe. ‘Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.’

Designing Suspense something has got to give. In Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, nothing happens twice.  Phewwwwww – fuck off – twice. Percy argues as a writer that’s what we should be looking at. Our characters face their worst-case scenario. You’re characters must juggle and dance with flaming chain-saws, but the writer must know the ending. Truly incredible craziness doesn’t come easy.

Don’t Look Back, Percy tells us writer and readers he gets irritated by backstory. Novice writers love backstory. It explains away the incredibly exciting story of  how Godot waited and waited or as Percy calls it the Scooby Doo trick. Time moves backwards and the theme tune of Why Don’t You Switch Off Your Television Set And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead comes on. Only, it would be a smart-phone now and not a telly. You see I’ve taken you backwards with my waffling on. I think it’s quite entertaining. I’m sad that way.

Sounds like Writing, you know it’s not. Percy gets that right? Writers like Shakespeare to me sound like writing. I want to read writers who don’t sound like writing. Who are human. Who are fools in the right/wrong way. Generally, any middle-class twaddle isn’t for me. Stick it. Sounds like Writing. I’ll scroll on past.

Activating Settings is the write what you know school of thought. I get that. I really do. Percy writes about Oregon. I write about Clydebank. When someone asks me what I write about I tell them, I write about us. That’s in theory, because nobody asks. But if they do, I’ll say, so there.

Percy advises writers to Get a Job. No, he’s not Norman Tebbit wittering on about how his dad didn’t go about rioting but got on his bike and got a job. What Percy is saying here is language is rooted in who we are. Our identity often comes from the job we do. Getting a job as roofer, nurse, labourer, dishwasher or working in a Job Creation scheme gives you a common lingo. A guy that tutored writers in Moniack Moor, which describes itself as Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, told me that typically the would-be writer would be a retired school teacher who decided to spend their remaining years tackling their great opus. Working class writers don’t go on retreats. They simply write. I’ve been doing it for years. It’s not my job. My job is to Thrill You when I do write. I think I can hear the Rocky them tune. Benjamin Percy is a knock-out.

 

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The Bleeder, BBC iPlayer, Director Philippe Falardeau.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0006wg1/the-bleeder

Sometimes you just hit upon a movie you know you’re going to love. Here it is. As surely as any movie written or starring Simon Pegg (or even an actor that looks like Pegg) is going to be a going to be a stinker, The Bleeder is a knock-out. I’m not a big boxing fan. Yeh, sure I remember the Rumble in the Jungle and Ali v’s Frazier. I watched them on BBC in the same way that I later watched Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe playing tennis. I didn’t care who won and if I never saw another boxing or tennis match for the rest of my life I wouldn’t be bothered. So I’d heard of Muhammad Ali, I’d heard of Joe Frazier. I’d heard of George Foreman, but I hadn’t heard of Chuck Wepner. There’s no reason why I should. That would be the equivalent of expecting me to know who the tenth seed at Wimbledon was in 1974.

Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber) known as the Bayonne Bleeder was in the top ten of heavyweight champs in the early 1970s. He was known as the Bayonne Bleeder because he came from the city of Bayonne in New Jersey and when he fought he never went down, but bled copiously. In an early scene the fight ref asks to look at his eye injury. It looks like there’s too much blood and he’ll be asked to retire from the bout. His corner-man flings a towel over his bad eye and the ref looks at his other eye, which is also a slit running with blood, but he’s declared fit to fight. That reminded me of when a referee asked to see our stud football studs at the beginning of a match on the gravel parks. Martin McGowan showed him his good boot, with no aluminium studs in it, then put his hand on the ref’s shoulder as if to support himself, twirled around and showed him the same boot, but from a different angle. If we were making a movie of it, McGowan would have went on to score a hat-trick with his illegal boot. The Bayonne Bleeder also goes on to win his bout. There was talk of him getting a title shot and pay day against George Foreman, who’s knocking everybody out for fun and thought to be unbeatable. Chuck knows his chances aren’t good, but like most other boxers, he’s got a day job and it would be a big pay day. When Ali does his rope-a-dope on Foreman, Chuck things his chance of glory is gone.

He’s a delicious looking wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss) to support and they have a daughter they adore. He writes his wife poems telling her how much he loves her, but he’s a man’s man that likes to play. He’s took a toot of this new wonder drug they call cocaine and it really does make the routine day wonderful. Chuck also has problems keeping his hands in the mitts. He likes to go the full fifteen rounds with any willing female. Phyllis catches up with Chuck and one of his floozies in a diner. There was only going to be one winner.

Remember when Rocky chases the chicken, but can’t catch it. Phyllis dumps the Bleeder. She’s had enough and goes to live with her mother. Then this match comes. Don King plays the race card. Muhammad Ali after beating Foreman is on a high and they want to cash in on some easy money. Ali versus the Bleeder. It’s Chuck’s big chance to be heavy- weight champion of the world. We know that Rocky goes into serious training and starts hitting rumps of meat in the deep-freeze. Chuck goes to the Catskills and does what a real professional is meant to do, he trains hard and just hopes he’s be able to finish the fight. Odds of 40-1 are being offered for Chuck to go the full fifteen rounds.  Phyllis his wife is back on board. And to quote another great film, Someone Up There Likes Me.

In the first fight after Foreman, Muhammad Ali fought Chuck. Chuck didn’t win. This isn’t Rocky, although the film was a what-if, what-if when Chuck really did put Muhammad down, Ali stayed down and Chuck became the new, white, heavyweight champion of the world, spawning a whole franchise of movies in which Rocky fought everyone from the Russians to the man on the moon and still bled and found himself, after a typically bruising  and bleeding encounter, still on top of the world. For the record, Chuck lost and was knocked out with 20 seconds remaining of the fifteen rounds. A moral victory, of sorts.

Part of the greatness of this film is what happened next. Chuck snorted and womanised and pissed it all away. The teeny tiny figure of  Sylvester Stallone   (Morgan Spector) offers him a part in his latest movie, but the big, for real, Bleeder, can’t stay straight enough to make the cut. The next time Stallone offers to meet Chuck is when the former is filming his latest movie, Prison Break, in the same prison where Chuck is serving time for dealing drugs.

This being America, Chuck does find redemption in an old flame, Linda (Naomi Watts) who waits for him and puts him on the straight and narrow. Billed as Rocky for real, this is much better. WATCH and WEEP. No bleeding about it.

Coalition Channel 4, 9pm.

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http://www.channel4.com/programmes/coalition/on-demand/57947-001

Timing is everything in politics. Growth in the economy. A few weeks from another Tory triumph, or another patchy coalition? Scriptwriter James Graham looks backwards to what happened five-years ago, when the Conservatives formed a coalition government with the Liberals. For me it’s a case of who do I hate the most.

In Ten Days that Shook the World, American socialist and journalist John Reed chronicled the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in Russia.  Here we have five days of farce and melodrama in which public school boys David Cameron (Mark Dexter) makes googly eyes at Nick Clegg (Bertie [Wooster] Carvel) and woos him with talk of a partnership of equals, with a similar background and views. He bathes in a steam of money, rips his shirt off for the viewers and says ‘Damn it Nick, look at my portfolio. We could be so happy together.’

Standing outside this duo is two people. The bearish Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve) waiting for a chance, waiting for a dance. It’s an arranged marriage. Gordon even has the audacity to return to number 10 Downing Street, even though his Labour Party polled less seats than the Tories. In a phone call Gordon pleads with Nick that the Tory’s polled less the 30% of the popular vote. 70% didn’t want them in power. They didn’t have a popular mandate, but really Nick, it’s up to you to do the right thing. He also has to remind the supercilious civil servant who runs the place that he is still –technically- Prime minister. Inside a briefing room his team find they have already been erased from history, their computer files deleted and their encrypted codes no longer work.

Looking over their shoulders is the patron saint of politicians Winston Churchill, who manages to be both a Liberal and Conservative politician that led a coalition government to Great Britain’s greatest victory, (prior to the 1966 World Cup win). Churchill featured in the last 1926 government of Ramsay McDonald between Labour and Liberal. David is shown on a stair vacillating (a politician’s equivalent of masturbation) about going all the way with young Nicky, below a giant portrait of Winston. And fresh-faced Nick is initially shown after the debates shown on live council telly, and cited publicly, as the most popular politician since Churchill. Adoring crowds gather to cheer his every pronouncement. (Boris Johnson, the future Tory leader, has of course written a biography of the great man).

Poor old Gordon, jilted and pushed around, has to watch on live TV David and Nicky dancing. Peter Mandelson (Mark Gatiss) is the most sympathetic of a cast of unsympathetic characters. He has to rein the old bear in and remind him that in real politics there’s still a chance. Prod him not to say too much in impassioned and earnest late-night phone calls.

Nicky squirms in the old bear’s presence. When Gordon in an act of daring and self-sacrifice steps aside and promises Nicky he can choose a new Labour beau from the catalogue, there is a moment when it might all happen. History might have been changed. Mark Gatiss might have been the new Churchill and the bubble economics of inflated house prices and helping rich people get richer at the expense of everyone else might not have been quite so dramatic. Nicky isn’t sure. He can’t make his mind up. Will her? Or won’t he?

Step in Paddy Ashdown with a Churchillian speech, most often seen coming out of the side of the mouth of Burgess Meredith in Rocky movies. Cue music.  If you want it now Nicky. You worked for it. You worked damned hard for it. You got to go out and get it. I will Paddy. I’ll do it for you. Freeze-frame: Nicky Deputy Prime Minister on the podium with a cheering crowd below him.

http://www.abctales.com/story/celticman/king-dole